Ron Gjerde halts the walk through Lakewood Cemetery near a monument topped with a sculpture of a robed Grecian woman. He points at a flat stone marker in the Fridley family section of the sprawling, parklike graveyard in Minneapolis.
“She was married to a guy named Fred Price but you won’t see any ‘Price’ engraved on her stone,” Gjerde says.
That’s because Mary’s husband was convicted of shoving her off the Mississippi River bluff near Town and Country Club in 1914, part of a plot to collect inheritance from her pioneering family — namesakes of the northern suburb of Fridley.
“He said she fell by accident chasing their dog, Chum,” Gjerde said. “But a private investigator determined she survived getting pushed and her husband then crashed her skull in with a rock.”
Fred died 16 years later in Stillwater prison and is buried at Lakewood, too. Theirs are just two of the 175,000 stories buried in the 250-acre, 146-year-old cemetery along the southeast corner of Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun).
Cemetery walking tours aren’t for everyone. But if you like history, check out Lakewood’s free, Memorial Day walking tours from noon to 3 p.m. on Monday. In a weird way, Minneapolis history comes alive when passing through the gates at Hennepin Avenue and 36th Street.
Monday’s tours, and a new display in the cemetery’s Garden Mausoleum, are pegged to the 150th anniversary of Minneapolis’ incorporation. The cemetery came four years later in 1871 in what was then open lake country to the south of Minneapolis, pop. 13,000.
The site, purchased for $21,000, was originally part of Richfield — accessible only down an unpaved path for horses and buggies. The cemetery’s founders wanted a garden-like setting to bury their dead, following the East Coast trend.
“Minneapolis’ founders wanted a grand cemetery and they certainly got one,” says Gjerde (pronounced Jer-dee), Lakewood’s president, who’s worked at the cemetery for 47 of his 65 years. He’s living proof that Lakewood’s countless stories aren’t all buried 6 feet deep.
In 1970, Gjerde was 18 — the oldest of an engineer’s four kids living near 28th Street and Irving Avenue. He wasn’t even aware of the cemetery a mile south of his home when he responded to a vague, help-wanted ad that said an “old establishment near Hennepin and Lake” was looking for a “neat-appearing young man to work in a small congenial office.”
Afraid of scaring off applicants, cemeteries never divulged their business in such ads. But working with the dead didn’t bother Gjerde a bit. He was hired as a sort of advance man, arriving every morning to double-check that day’s burial list and make sure freshly dug graves were ready. Then he’d lead funeral parties to their loved one’s grave and help get the casket on the lowering device.
Next came the paperwork, recording all the vital information on 3-by-5 note cards — manila-colored for males, salmon-pink for females. “That job hadn’t changed in 100 years when I started,” he said.
On our hourlong walk, Gjerde pointed out the rainbow granite boulder quarried near Morton, Minn., and used to mark the graves of Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila and their daughter Marcia — all killed in a 2002 plane crash. Their surviving sons insisted on a stone from Minnesota.
The Wellstones rest in Section 1, along with car dealer Rudy Luther, Twins owner Carl Pohlad and an obelisk honoring mill workers killed in an 1878 explosion at the Washburn A Mill.
“An obelisk points to the higher power,” Gjerde explains, decoding other monument motifs along the way. Oak leaves signal strength, and sheaves of wheat symbolize fruitful lives.
Some of the monuments top the graves of the famous — such as Dr. Levi Butler, a Civil War surgeon for the Union Army who gave up doctoring for Minnesota lumber. He’s the namesake of the Butler Square Building about 4 miles north in downtown Minneapolis.
Not all those interred here are rich white guys born in the 19th century. When state Sen. Mee Moua became the first Hmong-American elected to a state Legislature in 2002, she stopped at Lakewood Cemetery with her husband and toddler son.
They held a brief ceremony in the January snow at the grave of You Mai Chang, burning incense and leaving offerings of food and drink. They wanted Chang, her father-in-law who died in 1988 at 56, to share their historic day because his bravery as a soldier led the family to America.
Some of the graves are marked with more than the usual dollop of grief and sadness. Gjerde stops at the stone monument and an unmarked grave No. 4 in Lot 21 of Section 3. He’s pretty sure James Alexander Mackenzie is buried beneath the grass.
Mackenzie, a maker of a harp-piano hybrid, lost his 26-year-old wife, Eva, and daughters Maudie, 11, and Pearlie, 3, when their train derailed near Toledo, Ohio. When he returned to Minneapolis, he learned that a fire had destroyed his studio and all his handmade instruments.
Their monument says Eva “gave her life trying to rescue her only two children” in 1891. She died from her injuries a month later. Their memorial stone, festooned with harps, says the girls were “taken in the bloom of life.” Also etched on the brown stone are the words: “Good night, Papa.” When he took his own life 14 years later in 1905, Gjerde said no one was left to pay for an etched stone.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.